Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Religious History (part three of six)

Another Great Awakening came when the USA started to face a new set of challenges. Westward expansion forced the question of whether the USA would allow slavery to extend to the Pacific.

Many objections were purely economic ones. Slave owners had an unfair economic advantage over family farms or farms that had to pay their laborers. Around this time as well, industrialization started to take hold in the northeast, particularly in urban areas. These cities experienced large scale immigration from Germany and Catholic Ireland in the 1830-1850's. These people may have wanted farms of their own out west, but they did not have enough money just yet to get started. They needed to stop in the industrial centers to make money before heading west.

Because of this, there was a huge incentive from northerners to see that their economic policies dominated out west, because it meant they could compete with the southern slave owning farmers.

However, the push westward was a challenge for pastors as well. For frontier towns, a church was a marker of civilization. It was an indication that people out here were still good practicing Christians just like the city-dwellers, and that meant there was a high demand for pastors to move west.

Baptists had an easy time starting churches out west, because all a Baptist congregation required was that someone there be called to preach. Methodists were a little pickier, but since there were more towns popping up out west than there were Methodist ministers, they had to think of something. These ministers traveled from town to town, riding and preaching in circuit from town to town. When the minister wasn't in town, lay leadership put together a sort of Bible study to hold everyone over until their minister came back.

The point is that people were willing to go really far out of their way to prove that the American west was part of a Christian nation, and that the people there were good Christian folk just like anyone in the colonies. The second phase of the second Great Awakening caught on mainly in the Midwest and northeast, but not in the south. This was the reform movement.
This affected several areas of American life. Women began demanding equality, and they were getting these ideas from the pastors who’d taught them that all men and women are equal in the eyes of God. These women became the spearheads of reform in the northeast, and their reforms were often based in a religious obligation to care for one’s fellow man.

The Temperance movement was one such example. The goal was not necessarily complete prohibition of alcohol and other assorted sinful pastimes, but there was certainly strong disapproval in the air. Another example was a push for prison and asylum reform. The idea was to educate people in prisons to give them something to do after their release besides commit more crimes. In fact, education for everyone became a popular notion. After all educated people, they argued, don’t commit crimes. It is just the ignorant masses. Poor people commit crimes, not rich people. Educated people don’t tend to be poor, so by educating the poor they become wealthy and stop committing crimes!

One thing that came out of the reform phase was opposition to slavery. The idea was that it wasn’t just vaguely wrong, but a sin against God. Northerners and southerners alike were interested in the idea of returning slaves to Africa to create American colonies, though the impact of such a transition on the slaves themselves did not generally merit much consideration.

This idea wasn’t good enough for a new group beginning to emerge. The abolitionists stated that slavery needed to end. Period. The Society of Friends was way ahead on this particular issue. About the time of the American Revolution, the Friends had decided that they were going to start recommending that members not own slaves. Eventually this became more of a hard-line stance and Friends were told that they couldn't own them if they wanted to remain Friends.
On the premise that blacks and whites are equal in the eyes of God, other northern churches began condemning slavery. In turn southern churches condemned the northern churches. Northern branches and southern branches of the churches eventually split over slavery. The Baptists are still split into Baptists and Southern Baptists (though the Southern Baptists these days would probably not argue for slavery anymore).

Now suddenly there were religious reasons for the Yanks to hate the Confederates, and vice versa. Now there weren’t merely economic policies at stake, but the religious integrity of God’s own nation. It was too much. What started as a war to preserve the Union became about ending slavery and making the west safe for God’s law (whatever each side thought that might be).

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